When Stockholm-based design firm Doberman set its sights on a second location, New York wasn’t the immediate choice. “Our CEO wasn’t quite sure at first,” says managing director Michael Burkin. “But after exploring and prototyping what it could look like—it was basically a white board with a lot of sketches—the team looked at it and said ‘let’s do it.’”
Five years and 20 employees later, Doberman New York continues to honor its Swedish roots, while maintaining a distinct personality reflective of its location. “At our core as a company, we’re passionate about product design, designing experiences that matter to human beings, and designing for the world we want to live in,” says design director Katie Denton. “We also have a really long heritage with visual design, craft, and emotional expression. And we’ve been able to keep that.”
On how the New York shop differentiates itself from Stockholm, Burkin explains,
“We’re scrappy. We’re fast. We’re inspired by the city. Stockholm is a city, for sure, but New York is a particular urban hive.”
Brands that respect “design as an aligning process,” as Burkin puts it, seem to naturally gravitate to Doberman. When the Affordable Care Act passed in 2014, for example, millions of uninsured Americans were finally able to secure health insurance. Oscar, a health insurance start-up, partnered up with Doberman from the very beginning, as they identified an incredible opportunity to create a more comfortable experience for everyone involved. (Up to that point, applying for it was nothing short of confusing, frustrating, and time-consuming.)
“Health care had this really painful onboarding experience, where you went through this awful process of answering 100 questions you might not even know the answers to,” says Burkin. And so Doberman worked with the Oscar team to simplify and refine the process so in the end, new applicants had to answer just five questions, not 100. Equally important was making sure the brand felt friendly, not clinical and institutional. “It’s called Oscar, so it’s approachable and feels human,” says Burkin.
Things you won’t see from Doberman? Tried-and-true practices. A big reveal. Weekly presentations. Burkin says, “I’m allergic to firms who have a firm process. Rather, we have mindsets.” Work teams are set up to be lean and nimble, so the lines between groups get deliberately blurred, and often. Interaction and visual designers will frequently work on each others’ projects and files, for instance.
With only 20 employees, the group considers itself a family. So naturally, the space reflects this cozy mentality. Of her first interview, Denton says, “I walked in, and it felt like home—actually, a better version of home.” Split into two levels in a mixed-use commercial and residential building, the lower level space functions as the primary work space. “A lot of new studios are all white with lots of glass and screens,” says Denton. “Instead, ours has wood and brick that feels inspiring and warm.”
The upstairs space serves as a more social nook. There’s a fully-equipped kitchen where two employees prepare breakfast every Monday to kick off the work week, as well as a sofa, dining room table, and even a bedroom for when Stockholm staffers are in town. It all looks and feels authentically lived in, and not too polished.
“It’s messy! There’s Lego pieces on the table over there, and breakfast food on the counter until noon, but we like it that way,” says Burkin. “They’re reflections of the qualities we love. It’s all inspiring and a little messy, and very human.”